Escalation Nation: Twitter Response as Crisis Communications vs. Customer Service

Over the years the scrappy, enterprising advocates at The Consumerist helped consumers escalate their customer service issues by  publishing the direct e-mails and phone numbers of corporate executives, board members and PR folks. Now thanks to Twitter, the extrajurisdictional  (i.e. outside normal customer service channels) royal road to dispute resolution is at everyone’s fingertips 24/7.

Now that anyone can @ message company reps at will, and companies employ ever more sophisticated tools to monitor social media conversations and intercept rants in real time, companies face real questions about how to record, triage and respond without creating new and different problems for their employees.

A tweet by Jeremiah Owyang last year reminded me that a very public pillorying by an über-blogger isn’t necessarily a win for consumers in general, and could lead companies down an expensive, counterproductive dead end if they overcompensate for what might happen if they cross a social media celebrity. In commenting on the debate around the very public dustup between mommyblogger Heather Armstrong (@dooce) and Maytag/Whirlpool  (summarized succinctly by Forbes), Owyang observed, “When Dooce called Maytag’s support line, they didn’t factor in her PR impact –support and marketing MUST be aligned.”

Several only mildly facetious questions come to mind:

  1. Is it now the responsibility of front line customer service reps at large consumer goods companies to escalate every call from someone claiming to have a million Twitter followers? Is that a “red flag,” automatic escalation, or do they have to verify it first? Or is that  up to the first line supervisor? Second line?
  2. What’s the cutoff for special treatment/escalations? 1 million followers? Ranges (e.g. 250,000-499,999 followers gets a free replacement, 500,000+ gets a freebie plus donation to the charity of their choice)?
  3. If customer service reps are now expected to have the skills of online community managers, are they being trained enough? Paid enough?
  4. Should IT departments incorporate a social media ranking look-up as a desktop app for customer-facing personnel?
  5. Is not responding to/escalating all Twitter complaints now considered poor customer service?

Whether twitterati and prominent bloggers actually deserve special treatment is a question for moral philosophers, but social media celebs certainly expect and increasingly receive it because of actual — or merely potential — PR flaps like that one. And social media partisans fan those fears.

But for all their buzz, do these episodes have a statistically significant impact on sales and/or customer satisfaction? Greater than widespread/systemic problems (e.g.  the complaint of an individual with a personal grievance and a large bullhorn vs. large numbers of customers experiencing a pattern of similar problems)?

The Forbes article made two important observations:

  1. Armstrong suffered her own backlash/crisis communications episode as a result, and
  2. Whirlpool’s stock price didn’t take an immediate hit, even in this headline-driven, jumpy market.

I agree with Owyang that customer service and marketing must be aligned, but not to ensure white-glove treatment for celebrity bloggers. Rather, first align them to ensure all customers get the responsiveness they expect, then let positive word-of-mouth do the hard work for you when the inevitable social media diva moment happens.


  1. The key issue here is Power. And power is not altogether bad. What defines it is how it’s used. If you use your power to improve a process and get something done, that can often be a beneficial use. But what seems to be occurring more and more with bloggers and Twitterati is that they feel intentionally entitled (or at best oblivious to their condition) to being treated better than others. They wield their power like a cudgel often with little regard for more than their own sense of justice.

    What I appreciate is how you’ve defined this issue as potentially unhelpful for companies to cave to this feeling of entitlement. While not every customer should be treated the same, that same customer should not have the ability to hold the company PR hostage over the smallest infractions.

    • shatterboxvox says:


      Thanks for your comments. Even within the “power” dynamic, there’s real vs. perceived “power.” Once that cudgel strikes, it’s often unclear for a long time whether the impact did much more than throw up some dust, and it’s that uncertainty of outcome that feeds the appeasement cycle.

      My prediction is the next act in this play will be attempts by Maytag to turn Armstrong into a “fan.”

      • Yep, excellent point about real and perceived power and the long-term impact.

        The silver lining for Maytag could be that this episode exposes some gaps in their processes that they’ll choose to fill. This is where someone with power can help make a concerted and responsible difference. Or – and perhaps more likely – they’ll simply acquiesce to feed that appeasement cycle you mention.

  2. shatterboxvox says:

    You’re spot on, that is the real test: a rigorous approach to continuous improvement.

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